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#205 - Hazardous Waste Incineration -- Part 2: The Heart Of A Great Struggle, 30-Oct-1990

The American people are engaged in a great struggle. From the available
evidence it is clear that we cannot go on as we have been. The way we
conduct our business must change. Thoughtful people everywhere
recognize that this is true.

Yet for the most part, thoughtful people do not make--or even affect
directly--the decisions that create the problems. Those decisions are
made privately by small groups of narrowly-focused individuals of
enormous wealth and power, power that is exercised behind closed doors.
These decisionmakers are motivated chiefly by the need to return quick
profits to investors; all other considerations are strictly secondary.
Such decisions have very farreaching, public consequences but they are
not in any sense public decisions. For example, the decision to market
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals that are progressively
destroying the earth's ozone shield, was made by executives of a single
company--DuPont.[1] The decision to market PCBs--the potent toxins that
have now polluted the farthest corners of the planet, from fish at the
bottom of the deepest oceans to polar bears in the most remote reaches
of the arctic--was made by executives of one company--Monsanto.[2] With
1000 new chemicals being introduced each year into commercial channels,
the next chemical crisis is undoubtedly abuilding now, unbeknownst to
anyone save for a handful of executives who made the latest (and so far
unrevealed) disastrous decision. We have in place no mechanisms for
discovering what that next disaster may be until it is too late, until
it manifests itself in dreadful proportions. We have no way to affect
the marketing of such chemicals except after a catastrophe has become
apparent. We have no mechanism for requiring that private decision-
makers consider the distant and delayed consequences of their
decisions; in fact, we have no way to assure that any kinds of
consequences besides the monetary will be considered at all. We have no
mechanisms for bringing to justice the irresponsible decision-makers of
companies like DuPont and Monsanto who have wrought global-scale
mayhem; they have escaped justice entirely, and will no doubt continue
to do so. For all practical purposes, we the people are powerless.

Yet despite our powerlessness to affect industrial decisions of awesome
consequence, there is still great reason for hope because there is
visible across America a remarkable movement of citizens at the grass-
roots, local level. And they are being effective, forcing great changes
indirectly.

None of us can directly affect the decision to make a new, disastrous
chemical. But any of us-all of us--can send a strong message to the
companies who do make these things: "Make whatever you want. We can't
stop that (yet). But if you make toxic wastes in the process, you can't
dump those on us. Those we know how to stop today."

There are only five basic options for toxic byproducts: (a) Hide them
somewhere (landfill, deep well injection, ocean dumping, and so forth).
(b) Burn them somewhere (in a hazardous waste incinerator, a cement
kiln, etc.). (c) Detoxify them, break them down, by some almost-
certainly-expensive chemical process. (d) Use them as a raw material in
a new process (recycle them). (e) Don't make them in the first place.

Option (c) is almost never used because it means establishing a
factory, with workers, that produces no useful products and therefore
produces no income. Who will pay the workers? Option (d) is rarely used
because chemical byproducts (wastes) are rarely pure and most
industrial processes require raw materials that are purer than most
wastes. This leaves only (a), (b), and (e). These options lie at the
heart of the nation's great struggle today.

Option (e), everyone agrees, is what we need. The head of the EPA (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency) says so;[3] the EPA's distinguished
Science Advisory Board says so;[4] even the Congress from time to time
says so. Everyone important in Washington says so.

Unfortunately, this option requires American industry to do almost
everything differently from they way they are doing things now. It
means admitting error; it means confessing that it has been a mistake
over the past two decades to create the "waste management" industry
that now gobbles up $90 billion each year. It means going back to
square one and re-engineering enormously complex and interrelated
systems--thus destabilizing a manufacturing system which, although it
is demonstrably destroying the planet, at least returns decent profits
to most participants every quarter. It means spending money today that
will not pay rewards for a decade or more, and those who are driven by
the need to deliver profits to investors every three months cannot even
contemplate such a proposition. It is literally unthinkable. No,
pollution prevention is right and good and necessary, everyone agrees,
but, for the most part, no one does anything about it. (There are
exceptions, of course, but so far, we suspect, pollution prevention has
guided far less than 1% of the industrial decisions made each year.)

Therefore, industry's only real choices today are options (a) and (b).
Option (a)--land disposal--is a loser, everyone agrees. Organized crime
still likes it, and those who dispose of their wastes by handing them
to organized criminals, then averting their eyes, still like it. There
is even a cadre of holdout enthusiasts hidden within the EPA itself;
these are the candidates for the "revolving door" who plan to retire
one day on the largesse of the organized criminals. But thoughtful
people everywhere recognize that land disposal is dead. As the EPA's
own Science Advisory Board said recently, "landfills are no longer an
option for hazardous waste disposal."[5]

This leaves only one remaining disposal option--incineration. Given
that powerful industrial decisionmakers are unable (for whatever
reasons) to embrace pollution prevention, and given that no one in
their right mind would bury dangerous wastes in the ground (except at
midnight in New Jersey), the incineration of hazardous wastes is the
only remaining option. The question is, does this last option make
sense from the viewpoint of thoughtful people? Or should thoughtful
people do the nation a favor and kill this option the way they've
killed land disposal, thus forcing industry to embrace pollution
prevention before we all drown in toxic soup? This is a question worth
exploring in some detail, which we intend to do.

William Reilly's EPA has clearly decided that the nation must have more
and more incinerators. While the boss is off giving blue sky speeches
about the virtues of pollution prevention,[3] EPA's troops in the
trenches are busy making sure that any johnny-come-lately who wants to
set up an incinerator and start cashing in can do so with minimum
interference from the locals and from government. In the April 27,
1990, FEDERAL REGISTER (pgs. 17862-17921), Mr. Reilly's minions
proposed a set of hazardous waste incinerator regulations containing
loopholes for polluters so large they make DuPont's global ozone hole
(this year 12 million square miles in size) seem like a pin hole by
comparison.

[More detailed analyses will follow.]

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Sharon L. Roan, OZONE CRISIS; THE 15-YEAR EVOLUTION OF A SUDDEN
GLOBAL CRISIS (NY: Wiley, 1989).

[2] See RHWN #144.

[3] William Reilly. "Aiming Before We Shoot: The Quiet Revolution in
Environmental Policy." Speech delivered at the National Press Club
September 26, 1990; available from the EPA Communications and Public
Affairs Office (A-107), 401 M St., SW, Wash-ington, DC; copies are free
from: (202) 382-4361.

[4] Raymond Loehr and others, REDUCING RISK: SETTING PRIORITIES AND
STRATEGIES FOR ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION (washington, Dc: Science
Advisory Board, U.S. Epa [washington, Dc 20460; publication #SAB-EC-90-
021], September, 1990. Phone (202) 382-4126.

[5] Raymond Loehr and others, cited above, pg. 22.."

Descriptor terms: hazardous waste incineration; waste treatment
technologies; cfcs; dupont; monsanto; policies; chemical industry;
waste disposal industry; landfilling; pcbs; william reilly; epa;